From Chapter 28 of “Snake Charmer” – Kings and Gods

The shock of rain stopped with the same sudden ferocity as it began. The soft sands of the Great Fair turned to mud, and rivulets of brown water ran through the harder packed dirt of the streets and paths. Shamash burned through the clouds and a mist followed, rising from the ground in a smoldering fog of steam. The mist and fog created by the sun heating the wet earth created a layer of white and grey vapor rising to just above the camels’ knees. The camels, stinking of wet fur and dripping, plodded along, unperturbed.

The small party traveled past half the tents and buildings of the Great Fair during the squall, with the white walls of the Sapphire City looming ever higher. Much of the populace, itinerant and permanent alike, remained indoors for the storm. When the drumming of the rain on their roofs and tents quieted, they returned to their daily routines. From out of the eerie fog rose dark shapes of people wearing traditional robes colored in black, grey, or white. At a distance they appeared as ghosts floating through an ethereal afterlife lit by brilliant rays of light stabbing through clouds.

“All it needs is the lightning and thunder.”

Pahas looked to Emyni, “What, child?”

Emyni shook her head in silence. He wouldn’t understand the dreams. The few times she spoke of them made him uncomfortable. They were visions for her alone. Nevertheless, the glowing mist and dark shapes moving amongst it mirrored much of her vision. Instead of a dark fortress awaiting her, however, it was insurmountable white walls with blue-tipped spires. The opposite of her dream, yet the same.

“Don’t say a word.” She warned the Gage.

A sense of smug self-congratulation flowed from it.

The rains favored Emyni and her escorts in one way: with the streets largely cleared of shoppers and vendors, they made great time through the vast outskirts of Adummatu. They stood before the open gates of the city proper just as the last wisps of mist and fog faded to Shamash’s relentless assault.

The gates were guarded by large, unarmored men wielding spears with long, wide, blades instead of simple metal points. The men wore only flowing pants and sandals, leaving their muscled torsos bare, and a simple cloth cowl over their heads. They had skin as dark as those with Kerman blood, but their features were not those normally associated with the peoples of that region. Long, thin noses, pursed lips, and angular, shaven faces seemed at odds with the ebon skin.

“Where are they from, Pahas? They look Kerman.”

“Who?”

“The guards.”

The men stared straight ahead, either not hearing or not caring about Emyni’s words.

“Ah. Amratia. It’s north of Kerma. Very similar peoples, but the Amratians have mingled with the Bedda, the Abraqi, and the Urnamu enough to look different from their southern brothers.”

“They bring their guards from Amratia? Isn’t that expensive?”

Obar frowned.

“Expensive, but not as much as you might think. Many of these men are slaves. Purchased from the Amratians, from the Bedda raiders, or raised by slave mothers.”

“I didn’t know the Amratians sell slaves.”

“Many don’t. But it isn’t slavery as we know it. In Amratia, the King is considered a living God. His word is not questioned and his people will do whatever he orders without question. If the Amratian King needs money or wishes to trade, he simply orders some of his people offered in exchange for what he wants. They are happy to become slaves in the name of their King.”

“That’s horrible! King Ubaru would never do anything like that…would he?”

Katib shook his head, “No. But King Ubaru is not a God.”

“Is their King really a God?” Emyni’s face scrunched up.

Katib smiled, “We believe so.”

“You do?”

“Yes, child, I’m from Amratia.”

“You don’t look like those guards.”

Pahas and Obar laughed.

“Certainly not in the muscles.”

Katib sneered at his two friends, “My mother was from Babil and my father from Amratia. I am more fair skinned than my brother.”

“Oh.”

When they reached the gates proper, a guard walked up to greet them. He was garbed in much the same way as those manning the gates, save a golden sappara instead of the wide-bladed bronze spear, and a wrapped headdress of golden thread instead of the simple cowl.

“The Naguod of the Guard. We have someone’s interest. Be careful.” Pahas warned under his breath.

“Naguod?” Emyni whispered back.

“Adummatan for leader. Like a galkin. Not a slave.”

Before any more questions could be answered, the Naguod spoke.

“Nin,” he bowed to Emyni, “I was informed of your arrival. I offer myself and my men to you.”

Emyni opened her mouth and then closed it. Gods! The story of her being someone important somehow made it to the guards themselves. She looked to Pahas.

“Nin Emyni thanks you for your dutiful attendance, Naguod. She would be most pleased if you could provide directions to a fine inn. She has traveled long from Nun-Ki, on pilgrimage to see your fair jewel, and requires rest and fresh clothing.”

“At once, Lugal. I personally recommend the Ap Sariyn, a fine establishment run by my cousin, Lugal Sadiq. I shall organize a detail and escort you there personally.”

“That won’t be necessary, Naguod. We can find it ourselves.”

“Oh, but Lugal, Nin Emyni, it is necessary. The Merchant Council insists all important visitors, especially ladies of station, be escorted by an honor guard lead by a naguod.”

Pahas lowered his head in respect and waved his hand out wide.

“Then, by all means Naguod, fulfill your duties.”

Four men dressed and armed as the gate guards formed a simple box around the travelers. The Naguod walked slightly ahead of, and between, Emyni and Pahas. Obar and Katib took up positions behind.

The gates of Adummatu were different from Nun-Ki. Whereas Nun-Ki’s outer wall was a single entity, thick and tall, Adummatu’s wall was actually two separate walls with palisades on top and a raised walkway for guards between them. Under the walkway was an arched tunnel, stretching either direction along the length of the fortress, lit by sconces and oil lamps. People in fine clothes mixed with guards and servants in the passageways, and Emyni could see performers and market stalls as well.

“I am Naguod Siqma’al, Nin Emyni, Firstborn of the Third House of Siqma.”

He paused and looked to Emyni.

He was expecting her to say something, and she had no idea what to do. She opened her mouth and closed it. She had to say something, something which was expected from a girl of noble birth. What would Datena say?

“The Third House of Siqma is…” She faltered. Pahas was staring at her and mouthing words, but she didn’t understand what he was saying.

Siqma’al’s face showed signs of a frown forming.

“Is…is an ancient and noble house, Naguod Siqma’al. It has stood for generations. The Patriarch of Siqma accounted well of himself in the Battle of Mafkat. You wear your pride honorably, yet with reservation. Naguod is a rank of honor, but Lugal is your true title. Do not fear it. You can be both a leader and a lord, Lugal Siqma’al, Naguod of Adummatu.”

Siqma’al’s eyes grew wide. He stuttered a garbled response but, failing to make sense, bowed low.

“You do me great honor, Nin Emyni, with such wisdom.”

“I have done nothing but speak the truth, Lugal. Rise.”

Siqma’al recovered from his bow. There were tears in his eyes.

“Forgive me, Nin, but so few remember the Third House of Siqma these days.”

“When money rules over honor, my friend, honor must choose to do battle with the money or find itself lost to history.”

Siqma’al wiped the tears from his eyes.

“You speak the truth, Nin Emyni. And you have brought me great honor. I swear this to you: simply call for me, and the Third House of Siqma will be yours in honorable service.”

“I may hold you to that oath one day, Lugal Siqma’al.”

He bowed again, and returned to leading the procession through the streets.

Emyni gasped for breath. Her jaw ached.

Pahas moved his camel close to hers.

“Emyni,” he whispered, “what game are you playing with me?”

Emyni swallowed.

She helped me.”

“Gods.”

Siqma’al provided a commentary on the city as they rode through the wide streets but Emyni heard none of it. Her mind was on the Gage and the help it provided. She didn’t just tell Emyni what to say, she showed her what it was and what it meant. In her mind, in the span of a second, Emyni was witness the history of the Third House of Siqma.

Hundreds of years in the past, well before the rise of Urnamu the Builder, Adummatu was less a trading city than it was the dying remnants of an ancient empire. The jungles and rivers which once fed the people of Old Adummatu receded north, routed by the inevitable march of the Abraq Desert. The desperate King of Adummatu, in order to bring in food and revenue, led his army west. They conquered the fertile lands between Mafkat and the desert. There was little resistance – most of the peoples living there were nomadic farmers. They fled to the north, into the mountains. Eventually those refugees would settle in a ripe valley they would name Ebru.

The King was not satisfied with the narrow strip of farmland between Mafkat, the sea, and the open deserts. Mafkat was a peninsula suited for growing many staple crops and produced the expensive precious stone turquoise. It was lightly populated with Amratian farmers. The Adummatan army conquered most of the land before the Amratian King mounted a response. The two armies met in battle on a plain outside a small farming village in Mafkat. It would be known as the Battle of Mafkat.

Siqma, the ancestor of Siqma’al, was an Amratian farmer pressed into service by his King, a living God. Emyni saw the King was no true God, but a man who took the name of a God. He believed he was divine, though, which made him also believe he was invincible. This belief carried through the ranks of Amratian soldiers. They fought without fear, for they knew they were right and in the favor of the Gods.

The soldiers of both sides were simply armed and armored. Spears were the weapon of choice, many of them nothing more than sharpened sticks. For armor they carried shields of leather or woven reed. Both Kings fought with their men.

On the third day of battle, fortune struck the Amratian King and Siqma. In the heat of battle, in the confusion of the melee, Siqma found himself face-to-face with the Adummatan King. The King was old, Siqma saw, his beard grey and skin wrinkled. But he raised his spear regardless, and drove it at the aged monarch. The King raised his leather shield to ward away the blow. Siqma’s spear was tipped with an unusual stone: black mountainglass, imported from far away Kerma, and the sharpest stone known. Siqma put his strength to the thrust. The spear rent the leather shield and cut a jagged wound along the King’s arm. Blood flowed freely as the old ruler fell to the ground.

The Amratian King approached his fallen foe, guarded by Siqma. The Adummatan King lived but was dying.

“What is your name?” The God-King with a painted face and shiny jewelry asked Siqma.

“Siqma.” The farmer answered, his eyes on the ground.

“Sacrifice this one in the name of your God, Siqma, and I will reward you eternally.”

Siqma raised his spear for the killing blow.

“No,” the King commanded, “with this.”

He handed Siqma a short sickle, used for reaping grain and grass.

“Gods harvest the lives of men as farmers harvest the barley. Harvest this man for me.”

The old man protested weakly. But Siqma had no qualms. His God watched with satisfaction as the sickle ended the life of the man who dared to challenge him.

The Amratians pursued the broken Adummatan army across Mafkat and into the desert. The Adummatans scattered, some returning to the city, some disappearing into the sands. The ones in the sands would become the Bedda, forever fighting the war they lost. The ones in the city would slowly, over decades, turn their city into a trading power. What their King failed to gain with force, the merchants swindled and bought with gold, copper, bronze, brass, and gems.

Siqma returned to Amratia not as a farmer, but as a man of nobility. He had three sons, each becoming a House of Siqma. The Third House of Siqma brought its wealth to Adummatu. Siqma’al was born in the city, lived in the city, and served the city.

All this the Gage showed Emyni in the blink of an eye. It told her the words to speak, and how to say them. She didn’t understand why, however.

A Goddess needs worshipers, and her instrument needs servants, my child. And if you are to play the role of a member of a great house, you should speak and act like one.

Emyni ground her teeth together. The bundle was radiant.

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